This is a tale of a meeting between two dreary, scrawny, fairly old women on a planet that was dying fast. Ursula, in a few days, was going to turn 70. She received an encoded and somewhat strange message from Sheila. In her last letter to Ursula, Sheila wrote, “I wish you could see what I’m seeing. Last night, I dreamt of you. It was like we both turned into our younger selves, glistening with youth and laughter. Would you come, Sulla, if I call for you?” She signed it off with a location that Ursula couldn’t recognize, accompanied by a map. With all the uncertainty and the impending death, she finally answered her friend’s request with some dramatic flair, “Yes, I would come to you, anywhere you want me to, Eila.” Ursula’s eyes lit up with anticipation and restlessness after a very long, long time. She was about to undertake a journey to a place she’d never heard of and would probably never forget.
As she looked out of her bus window, Ursula could barely make out anything amidst the widespread darkness and the distant moonlight. She used to gaze at the moon often, admiring it and feeling a strange pity for it. To her, this celestial body always looked like it was full of feelings and entirely alone, much like the rest of humanity. Her husband, Davis, with his easily distracted nature, often ignored Ursula as she quietly made such observations. For her, Sheila was the only other being with whom she could share her consciousness. She felt a spiritual and unearthly bond with her. She had no explainable explanation for why she felt the way she did. She slowly drifted into a dreamy sleep. A familiar scene from her early life replayed in her mind. Ursula first met Sheila in grammar school when they were 6 and found a sister and a friend in each other; she could still hear the giggles of the two little girls, riding their bicycles under the grey sky, no worries, only lightness.
As they grew up, Ursula watched her friend and observed her as if she were a subject in one of her paintings. The smirk on Sheila’s pale, long face revealed to Ursula that Sheila knew she was being observed and admired by her friend. There was always a glint in Sheila’s sea-green eyes, as if they were holding some secret. They often met early in the morning in an empty field near their town, covered with unruly and unattended grass. When they turned 21, they would meet in secret, sheltering their thoughts and conversations from other people and disclosing them only to each other. Ursula with her drawing board and pens, and Sheila with her empty hands and a mind jostling with random thoughts. Sheila once shared one of her fantasies with Ursula that they both had eloped together and were living their lives in the wilderness. Sheila even had a vivid image of a hill, where they had finally found a sense of freedom and were no longer bound by the realities of their times. But all the fantasies and daydreams dissolved as soon as they returned to their respective homes. Ursula recalled the last time she went to that field with Sheila, and it filled her with melancholy.
“Tell me,” Ursula said once while drawing a faint outline of Sheila’s body. She was lying on the grass and playing with her honey-coloured hair. “What are you thinking?”
“Nothing,” Sheila replied plainly. “Sometimes I don’t know what to think of myself. I don’t feel like a person anymore.”
Ursula continued with her sketch, knowing it must be some hideous working of her friend’s fiancé, making her question her personhood. Sheila had recently gotten engaged to a mill worker, Lewis. He had handsome features but a crude attitude. When Sheila, for the very first time, introduced Lewis to Ursula, he didn’t utter a single word to her. He didn’t ignore her completely; rather, he gave her a pensive look, as if he found her suspicious of some wrongdoing. She later found him laughing with his friends while looking at her. There was some harshness in his eyes. Ursula had told this to Sheila when they once had a discussion over Lewis and the necessity of getting married, or the non-necessity of it.
Sheila calmly lay on the grass. Spreading her hands above her head, she said, “It’s not Lewis’s fault. That’s life, Sulla. It breaks everything that’s soft and sweet, little by little.”
Ursula looked at her friend’s small and fragile body and felt amused by the seriousness of her tone. She didn’t feel like she was ready for such a life. “Don’t let him take away your laugh,” Ursula pleaded, as if she already knew there was a storm ahead in both their lives.
Factories had started shutting down back then, and there were some talks going around their town that the mill where Lewis was working might be closed down, too. Sheila, who was earning very little from her job as a special educator, was worried about Lewis’s temper. She shuddered thinking about their future if the rumours about the mill would turn out to be true. Whenever things got a little bit tipsy in their lives, so did Lewis. Coming home late at night, smelling of alcohol and failure, Lewis tended to roughen her up. Ursula told Sheila that she should have left him when he hit her for the first time. It was just a few days after they had cremated their first daughter’s ashes, but Sheila had let it go as a misjudgement Lewis had made in a drunken and despaired state. Sheila had chosen to forget all about it when she got pregnant for the second time, and Lewis seemed in a fairly good mood, mostly due to guilt and hope. But when their second daughter, Lily, had another severe asthma attack and needed urgent medical aid, Lewis refused to seek any treatment.
“She is going to die, too, what’s the use,” he had said, with such casualness that Sheila clenched her fingers into a fist. At that moment, when her husband suggested the possibility of Lily’s early demise, she seriously considered leaving him for good. It was Ursula who finally came to help her out, and accompanied her to visit a doctor in the city. But every time the situation was the same. There was always some abnormality in her babies and the doctors always cited natural causes. There was nothing they could do. Sheila’s daughter died in her sleep when she was just 4 years old. It took another twenty years for Sheila to leave Lewis. “All those years wasted, living with such a bitter, cold, and useless man, hoping he would change,” Sheila had said, looking at Ursula with dewy eyes.
Exiting from the tunnel of old memories, Ursula was woken up by the bus conductor. She wiped off some drool with a handkerchief and got down from the bus. There was a huge neon-lit sign hanging in the air. It was a bar but that was not her final destination. It was a stop that Sheila had indicated on the map. She entered it with a feeling similar to entering a church after a long time. All the drunken laughter, which sounded like sobbing and weeping, dialogues overlapped as people were drowning their sorrows in liquor and spilling some eventful incidents of their life, dwelling on the meaninglessness and vastness of everything they had lived through. In times like these, when everything and everyone was withering away from some illness or another, losing their bread and children, and living in their empty, broken homes, a drink or two was the only refuge people could think of. Even if it’s just for a few hours, with some help from all the booze, people were trying to grapple with their sorrows and reminding themselves of their once spirited selves. It wasn’t the denial but the acceptance of their collective fate that gave a holy air to everyone who was there at the bar. Picking up her first drink in years, it was like Ursula could taste life again.
Addressing the issue of dying and the fear of it, a young man, who could be of the same age as Ursula’s son if he got to live that long, said, “I don’t feel terrified of it at all.” Ursula overheard the conversation with disbelief as she was getting closer to death with each passing day and even the thought of it made her uneasy. The young man continued, “I refused to think of it as a full stop. It’s just a fucking comma, and nothing else.” It happened that the young man had lost his girlfriend a week ago and he rejected the idea that he was not going to meet her ever again. “Death is a lone, steely bastard, but I ain’t a less fucker than it,” the man said, waving his glass off in the air. “Love is a kind of a sorcery; it can bring back anyone.” Ursula admired the hopeless romantic in that young fellow, reminiscing about the first time she met Davis, in a bar just like this one.
When Ursula saw Davis, she could not take her eyes off him. With his dark eyes and brown hair, Davis immediately captivated her. When she offered to make a portrait of him, Davis asked, “What would I get in return?” “My whole attention,” she answered, with a broad smile on her face. “Maybe, a kiss and a cup of tea, too.” Davis accepted her offer and smiled, “I would like that.” Within six months, he turned from her muse to a lover and a year later, they got married. But after experiencing so much loss, they both forgot to preserve their love for each other. After burying their second son, they barely touched each other; occasionally offering each other a hug or a glance with no warmth or affection. While walking on a rusty road, Ursula reminded herself how alone she had gotten in her marriage over the years. Ursula couldn’t even remember when was the last time she and Davis went for a walk together. There was a bridge between them which Ursula couldn’t cross on her own. Slowly, she realised that she became less than nothing to Davis. All his love disappeared the moment they lost the possibility of having their own family. It wasn’t easy on Ursula for losing Davis like that. She knew then she could confide such trivial issues of her heart only to Sheila.
“I think he despises me,” Ursula had wept with her head in Sheila’s lap. “It’s like he’s punishing me for something I’ve no control over.”
“I think he despises himself,” Sheila said, consoling her. “And life itself. He has withdrawn himself from everything that makes him feel anything, but you can’t do that to yourself, Sulla. You’ve to be strong,” she said as she parted Ursula’s hair in sections, rubbing her scalp. It was always comforting to talk to Sheila. Ursula knew as long as she was with Sheila, she would never feel alone or helpless. With every conversation, Sheila injected some hope into her life and soul.
Ursula and Sheila each lost their tenderness, just like they’d lost their love, dreams, and hope. Grief almost consumed them both when their children were taken away so early by sickness. Ursula’s sons were born with fragile hearts and Sheila’s daughters with weak lungs, and they all died too painfully, leaving both the women with an incurable heartache and utter despair. But, they’d taken all the hard blows that life had dealt them, only because they had each other. When Ursula had to bury her second son who, like his brother, survived only for a year, Sheila was beside her, tending her invisible wounds; and when Sheila found herself in the same misery, Ursula held her close, wrapping Sheila in warmth and love.
They had both teared up at each other’s weddings and attended all the baby showers, and prayed each time for a different outcome. Though they weren’t religious, it was life that made them bow before the unknown. Wishing, this time, life would remain intact in those tiny beings that they had pushed through their tired bodies with love, prayers, labour, blood, and brimming hope. Not once did they think that they would attend another funeral for another child. Ursula kept all the baby blankets, sonograms, and photos that Davis took of her and their sons at the time of their birth. The past, time and again, took hold of her, while her husband made himself invulnerable to such misgivings of life. He kept his pain muted and hidden, leaving his wife all alone in her suffering.
Lately, Ursula had picked up her drawing tools again and opened up a small studio that she barely left. She wanted to believe in something for the remainder of her life and tethered herself to art and friendship. Sheila had started working on a children’s book and had shifted her base to another city in her 50s. They continued their friendship through regular correspondence over the years, making Skype calls to each other every other day, and both, Ursula and Sheila, made sure to meet each other once or twice every month. But it had been a year since they had last met each other. Another pandemic hit, and it was the second pandemic both women had witnessed in their 70 years of life, and this time, too, the hospitals were found to be ill-equipped and understaffed. Overnight, the entire country went into a complete lockdown for an indefinite period. The two friends, Ursula and Sheila, felt uncertain about when they could possibly meet each other again. When Ursula saw the news that the lockdown was being lifted, within a week, she received that letter from Sheila and couldn’t resist reuniting with her old friend. This time, Ursula promised herself that she wouldn’t leave Sheila’s side ever again.
On her journey, Ursula saw a dried-up river, a barren land which might have once been a garden of roses, and people lining up in front of chemist shops to get their prescriptions filled. She also saw a young couple swaying in each other’s arms on the side of the street, people warming themselves, encircling around a bonfire, and collecting stories and music of laughter filling the air. Everything seemed in balance. It was a dance of life and death, fear and hope. As she walked up to a hill, with her weak joints and tender limbs, a small, skinny figure appeared. It was Sheila who was sitting on a small, stony bench, waiting for her. Ursula settled herself beside her friend who was looking at the sky. The moon never looked so beautiful as it did the night Ursula turned 70. She felt as young as when she was 6. All the dreariness dissipated, replaced by an influx of love and light that flooded her heart. She observed her friend, committing the details of her face to memory, noting the delicate wrinkles around her sea-green eyes and her now colorless yet still smooth and straight hair. Sheila turned her face toward her, her eyes glinted as if she held a secret. For the first time, Ursula felt she knew what it was as they held each other’s wrinkly hands, gazing at the gray sky, just as they did in their youth, no worries, only lightness.
Nidhi lives in Delhi. She is a short fiction writer, poet, and a deeply anxious person. Through her writing, she explores the ideas of love, sexuality, and the unavoidable aspect of loneliness in a romantic relationship. Being a painfully shy person, she finds writing to be a liberating force. She is a ‘blahcksheep’ as she weaves a world of her own with fierceness and tenderness in equal measure, without inhibitions. Her Instagram handle is @jayne_nidhi.”